The progress of the past few years has changed people’s perceptions of social issues. One area of particular importance for women advisers is labor and equal employment opportunities — specifically, board diversity. According to research conducted by 50/50 Women on Boards, “Independent research has long established that companies with gender-balanced and diverse boards are more profitable and productive, and the workforce is better engaged.” So you would think that corporate and nonprofit boards alike would race to attract new talent, right?
While there is some good news on women attaining corporate board seats, progress is still slow. Today, 25% of all board directors in the S&P 500 are women — a record high. Yet for women of color, that number is less than 10%. For comparison, in 2018, women filled 22.5% of board seats, with only 4.6% held by women of color. In the Russell 3000, 23.7% of corporate board seats are currently held by women.
CREATING A STRATEGIC PLAN
At Commonwealth’s virtual 2021 Summit for Women Advisors, I had the privilege to work with a panel of smart, successful women advisers on the topic of gaining board seats. For these advisers, giving back and helping others is a way of life, and each of them had a long history of community involvement. They’ve realized that if you want to effect change, you need to have a seat at the table.
When they became board members and saw firsthand how decisions were made, our panelists felt they became greater catalysts for that desired change. These highly successful advisers have chaired major educational institutions, served on successful philanthropy boards, and led medical research boards and leadership organizations for girls. And yet, with all of this invaluable experience, they still haven’t been called to serve at major corporations.
Here are some of the panelists’ key takeaways to help other women advisers attain leadership roles:
- Start with nonprofits. The panelists agreed that nonprofits offer the best opportunity for women to get started with board representation, because the candidates often have strong local reputations and key contacts within the group.
- Care about the cause. First and foremost, it’s important to care about the cause or charity. There’s a lot of work involved in sitting on a board, so it’s important to be connected to the cause and feel invested in making a difference.
- Network, strategically. This is a critical skill to master. Ask to be introduced to the people that have influence; men and women alike are usually happy to connect you with these key contacts. Let people know you are looking to serve on a board, so they keep you in mind when an opportunity crops up.
- Find your voice. The panelists agree that it can be intimidating once you are on a board; it’s easy to think everyone else knows more than you. Have confidence in yourself and your abilities, knowing that the board chose you for a reason. Always ask questions, and offer your important insights and unique perspective.
- Do your research. The adviser panelists always research the board of the companies they invest in and discuss their findings with clients. They also bring back industry perspectives they’ve learned from other board members, such as the specific challenges facing certain companies.
INVESTING IN WOMEN LEADERS
Corporate board seats are still hard to obtain for women. As you advance, the panel recommends looking for bigger nonprofits and “body parts” boards, such as heart or lung research foundations. Find leadership opportunities that will help you be visible and differentiated when corporate boards are searching. It’s worth noting that, unlike nonprofit boards, corporate seats offer significant cash and stock compensation. For busy advisers with demanding careers, it’s comforting to know that time away from their practice can still bring income to their families.
Many boards could benefit from greater diversity and the financial acumen that women advisers possess. As we continue to make strides in equal employment opportunities and representation, nonprofit and corporate boards would be wise to look for opportunities to give women advisers a seat at the table — it could be the best investment they ever make.
It’s tough to build an advice practice around those who need it most
Andrew is half-human, half-gamer. He’s also a science fiction author writing for BleeBot.